It takes a perfect storm to make a great album – an audacious mix of tension and release, passion and calm, love and violence.
Hallmarks associated with all true forces of nature, these mighty attributes were exactly what Little Big Town had in their corner as they blew into the studio in late February for the whirlwind recording session that produced their strongest work yet, their aptly titled fifth album, Tornado.
LBT didn’t set out to break any land speed records in the studio. However, considering that the majority of Tornado took just seven days to record, that’s exactly what the recording process felt like to Karen Fairchild, Kimberly Schlapman, Phillip Sweet and Jimi Westbrook, a group famous for their trademark four-part harmonies.
The elements that would produce Tornado started brewing earlier this year. After doing a bit of soul-searching, the band realized they were ready for a change. Despite a solid 13-year career during which they’ve sold 1.5 million records, racked up multiple Grammy, CMA and ACM nominations, and crafted Top 10 country hits (“Boondocks” and “Bring It On Home” from their platinum 2005 album The Road to Here, and “Little White Church” from their acclaimed 2010 release, The Reason Why), LBT was feeling a little too secure in their time-tested way of doing things in the studio.
They decided to shake things up a little.
The change started with the draft of producer Jay Joyce (Eric Church, Patty Griffin), who stood in for their longtime collaborator Wayne Kirkpatrick at the boards. “We adore Wayne: he really helped us in the early days when we were trying to define our sound,” Karen says, fondly. “And he’s part of the reason why we’re a band. We love our past records, and we wouldn’t change anything about how we made them, but we wanted to break up our routine for this one and get a little bit out of our comfort zone.”
LBT was already familiar with Joyce’s work, both as a producer and a performer: a noted guitarist, he had played with the band on The Reason Why. However, there’s a big difference between dropping by the studio for a few hours to gig on one track and masterminding an entire album.
If there were any lingering doubts that Joyce was a good fit for the project, they all fell away when the producer showed up to his first meeting with the band brandishing a plan for a recording experience that was unlike anything else they had ever done before.
“Jay was the only guy we talked to who said, ‘I know what I would do with you guys. I’ve loved your other records, but I have some things I’d love to try,’” Karen recalls. “When he talked to us about what he wanted to do, there was no hesitation,” Jimi adds. “He was all there; in Jay’s mind, he had already started working.” The band quickly followed suit, launching into what would become a wonderful cyclone of a recording session. Rehearsals began in late February; a month later, they had recorded the entire album.
Adapting to this swift course of action was admittedly a bit of a shock to the band’s system. The week before entering the studio, LBT was on the road, removed from any kind of preproduction. “It was Sunday night, and we were going into the studio the next morning,” Karen says, “and there were still 25 potential songs that needed to be whittled down. And we needed to figure out who was gonna sing them, and in what key, with what arrangement … We panicked. But when I called Jay, he said, ‘Don’t worry about it. Just show up here tomorrow and we’ll figure it out together.’”
Flying by the seat of their pants was an entirely new way of working for four avowed perfectionists accustomed to a much more conventional recording process. Joyce encouraged them to approach their work with feeling rather than reason. “He really pushed us,” says Kimberly. “We tend to toil over things; we like to rethink and discuss problems. Jay stopped us from doing that. Literally, we would be in the middle of talking something out, and he would tell us to stop thinking and start singing.”
“Less thinking, more singing” became LBT’s unofficial slogan as they followed Joyce’s plan of action, which was new to him as well. “The process wasn’t typical of how Jay works, either,” Jimi explains. “It was exciting to see what would happen. Because of that, there was a great energy all the time in the studio, and I think you can hear that on the record.”
If some of Joyce’s methods were foreign to the band, others were rooted in familiarity. For instance, the producer encouraged LBT to use their road band in the studio. “That ended up being a huge part of the energy and spontaneity that comes across on the album,” Kimberly says. “We have a natural chemistry with those guys,” Phillip adds. “We already loved playing with them on the road, so being with them in the studio made sense. It was amazing how great it felt.”
The team worked together, in one room, with Joyce taping everything, including four days of rehearsals. No recording was off-limits: some practice tracks ended up on the album. “Even if it was a loose version of what we going for, if it had the right vibe, it was used,” Karen says. Wishy-washiness was also stricken from the agenda, Phillip says: “If it didn’t come together fast, then it didn’t come together at all. We’d drop it.”
On the fifth day, the group headed to Nashville’s Sound Emporium to start recording. To keep the sessions feeling organic and relaxed, Joyce asked the band to pretend that they were on tour; each session was treated like a live show. “He told us to come in dressed to go on stage, and to do whatever we normally do before we play a show,” says Karen. “We’d go to dinner and come back laughing with some drinks in us, in a great mood,” Phillip remembers.” And it continued into the studio.
The first point of action was clocking the languid, sexy strains of “Pontoon,” the album’s first single. (“We did it first because we wanted to start out having fun,” Karen says. “There was a psychology to how we did things.”)
A buoyant, light-hearted sing-along, “Pontoon” was written by Natalie Hemby, Luke Laird and Barry Dean. The song’s presence on the album is a direct result of the band’s conscious decision to include different writers in their process. “We always cut a few outside songs, but this time we wanted to really open it up and see what we could find, no matter where it comes from,” Karen says. Fun songs were a chief priority. “‘Pontoon’ is crazy and silly, but sexy and smart, too. We’d never recorded anything like it.” The gamble paid off: released in April as the album’s first single, “Pontoon” is LBT’s first summertime party hit.
LBT eased through ten more songs during the session. “Front Porch Thing” is a happy anthem about proudly doing as little as humanly possible. “This song takes me back to my first love,” says Kimberly. “It’s playful and spirited and a big ol’ dose of feel-good. It’s so much fun to sing in the live show. We open it up with only vocals and it gets bigger and more rowdy as we go.”
The entire band shares co-writing credits with Lori McKenna on the yearning ballad “Your Side of the Bed,” an evocative inquiry into the mind of a distant lover. “I love that this lyric is so brutally honest,” Karen says. “There are times in a relationship when you allow things to come between you, so much so that it feels like an incredibly long way back to each other. It's a lonely place to be especially when you’re lying right next to someone you love.”
“Tornado” is a wicked threat from writers Natalie Hemby and Delta Maid that deftly compares a scorned woman to a force of nature that the band and its fellow Southerners know all too well. “Natalie played it for us one night and we were like, man, I don’t think I’ve ever heard a chick say, ‘I’m a tornado,’” Karen says of the song, featuring an ominous chorus in which the singer threatens to destroy the house she shares with her wayward man, to “toss it in the air and put it in the ground/Make sure you’re never found.” “Yeah, it’s pretty badass,” Jimi agrees.
“Pavement Ends” and “On Fire Tonight,” which the band wrote with Laird, are balls-out party songs. “Can’t Go Back” sounds like a whispered prayer delivered by a quartet of kind kindred spirits. "The first time I heard it I knew I wanted it on this record,” Jimi says. “It has one of the most beautiful and haunting melodies I've ever heard - one of those songs that feels like it’s washing over you as you listen to it. It’s one of my favorite things we've ever cut."
The album ends with “Night Owl,” a soothing lullaby caringly penned by all four members of the group that promises comfort and love at the end of an oft-traveled road.
The cooing chorus of “Night Owl” was achieved by the band singing into an echo chamber. “ At the studio, there’s a little hole in the wall that you go through to the chamber, where there are microphones set up to catch the echo. We all got inside to sing the ‘who-o-oohs,’” Phillip remembers. (Kimberly and Jimi used the space to create the spooky whistles on “Tornado.” “They had a duel – a whistle-off in the chamber,” Karen jokes.)
“Self Made,” written by Karen and Jimi with Natalie Hemby and Jedd Hughes, was intentionally the last song to be recorded. A forceful testament to the challenges LBT has faced as a band and as individuals – challenges they’ve ultimately transcended – it’s become the band’s working mantra, “so we thought it was a good way to finish,” Karen says.
By the time “Self Made” was recorded, everyone had let down their guard, not to mention their hair, which gives the track extra energy and a special sense of urgency that was felt by everyone involved. “During the session our guitarist Johnny (Duke) asked Jay what advice he had for him, because there’s some amazing guitar work on that song,” Karen remembers. “And Jay’s, like, ‘Release your inner monkey, man!’ He was standing on top of the speakers wearing big Chanel sunglasses - I don’t know where he got them – holding a bullhorn. On the track that made the album, you can hear him counting off: ‘One, two, three - get it, Johnny!’ Jay said his heart was racing when we finished.”
“We all came off that session with our hearts beating out of our chests,” Phillips says. “When Karen and Jimi first played us that song, I instantly gravitated towards it because I love what it said: ‘Born a survivor, like father, like gun.’ It was just cool.”
Beyond being a solid song, Phillip says the creation of “Self Made’ also represented a change in how the band members went about their work: “We were allowing ourselves to be open and creative in the writing process and good stuff was happening. I think we found that we were stretching ourselves and not just doing the same old things we had done before.”
Fond memories of their brief time in the studio notwithstanding, each member of the band is thrilled with the final product. “I think ‘edge’ is a word that gets overused,” Karen says. “But this record does have a raw edge to it.” “It has a really different vibe to it,” Jimi agrees “It doesn’t sound like anything else on the radio right now.”
“There’s a confidence that permeates this album,” says Phillip. “And that applies to the sound of the vocals and the performances; it applies to the lyrics and the ways we’re emoting. We weren’t scared to perform it or say it from our heart. There was no tiptoeing around about it. It was about speaking the message clearly and as loudly as you can.”
For a band of Little Big Town’s stature, experience and esteem, this level of transparency and the decision to take the road less traveled into the studio are bold moves - ones they’re proud to have taken. “I read a quote recently that said you should do something everyday that scares you – it’s good for you,” Phillip says. “Well, at the beginning we were scared and nervous. But we would have never dreamed that it would come together so beautifully.”
Indeed, both gorgeous and fearsome, Tornado is nothing short of a force of nature.